Sunday, 3 July 2022

New Suburbia 2: cities or families?

With the announcement of initial figures from the 2021 census there has been a little flurry of stories about housing policy plus, for perhaps the first time in decades, the national media has noticed that we stopped having quite so many babies.

The population of England and Wales aged 65 and over has finally surpassed the number of children aged under 15, according to the first results of the 2021 census, which provided a snapshot of an increasingly crowded island nation.

As a 20% surge in the number of people aged 65 and over in the past decade drove the population of England and Wales to a historic high of 59,597,300, the Office for National Statistics recorded 11.1 million people aged 65 and over compared with 10.4 million people aged under 15, tipping a balance that has favoured the young for decades.

Cue a little policy panic as people start asking whether this is a problem, why there are so many of us sixty-somethings, and how come we have so few children? Some commentary is dull and short-term – are there too many school places, what does this mean for the NHS and other technocratic questions. Among this there are, however, some people asking about this:

The number of infants aged four and under was one of the few categories where the population fell but the over-90 population broke through the half a million mark, rising to 527,900 people.

Not so much that, even with a pandemic, our over-90 population continues to grow (this is a good thing by the way) but how come we’ve so few pre-school kids. The first comments on this inevitably point to the obvious and proximate cause of low fertility rates – the cost of having a child. Most commonly people frame this cost in terms of how expensive it is to buy childcare. We’re told, for example, that Germany has lower childcare costs than the UK (it doesn’t, it just has a bigger state subsidy) but this observation is almost always made in the context of how the cost of childcare acts as a barrier to women returning to work. As a result, we ask what is best for the mother’s economic circumstances rather than what is best for the child.

But there’s little evidence that lower childcare costs result in higher fertility rates. The UK has a higher fertility rate than Germany (1.74 compared to 1.61) yet, as we have noted, German childcare costs are (to the parent) close to zero whereas UK rates are among the highest in the world. So, if we want a policy that leads to higher fertility rates, state-subsidised childcare isn’t the solution because its sole purpose is to get the woman back into the workforce in the shortest possible time.

Given this finding, people start looking for other factors that lead to lower fertility – levels of female education and especially higher education, delayed start to family formation, and the status of women within the economy (if not within wider society). And all these things would feature in a full analysis of declining fertility and its relationship to society being more socially liberal and more economically successful. But, as Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson wrote in “Empty Planet”, the biggest reason for fertility decline is urbanisation. The best way to get reductions in fertility is to increase the numbers living in dense urban environments.

We have urbanised for the obvious and sensible reason that cities are, in proximate terms, very good for the economy. Even if you don’t accept the certainties urbanists apply to agglomeration theory, there’s no doubt that cities drive a great deal of the international economy. The problem is that, as I wrote a while ago, cities are also mankind’s dead end:

And who would - without necessity or accident - have children in a high-rise environment featuring fug-filled air that causes asthma, streets filled with rushing vehicles, public spaces designed for adults, and places dominated by strangers. In San Francisco and Berkeley over 70% of households are childless. And we're supposed to see dense urban living as a better model than the sprawl or the suburbs, the comfort of the small town or the community of the village?

The problem isn't just that the rural and small-town West has rebelled against the city but that the city is a failing model - at least the idea of the concentrated, centralised, mayor-led city. These things are parasites, sucking away all the good from small towns with the promise of riches, opportunities and better bars while giving little back when it comes to the long-term quality of our lives. Urbanists talk about 'liveability' and 'walkability', about public spaces, even about play - yet the reality of the city is selfish, focused on the here and now rather than on creating places to which people can relate, where they might want to spend their whole lives.

Cities may be an economic success, but they are a sociological disaster. Higher rates of crime, poorer health, more road accidents, higher rates of mental distress, more loneliness and, as we’ve seen, lots fewer children.

So, what to do? One hundred and fifty years ago, people who lived in cities sought out a solution. Not through academic study but by, as their economic circumstances improved, moving a mile or two out of the city to live in a place more suited to family, good health, relaxation and family life. As the railways spread their fingers out from cites like London and New York, communities grew up filled with the families of workers in those cities. Later, as the car arrived, these places spread a little further. Just so long as the worker to get to his - we are talking about a man here - work within a reasonable time (and get home to see his family). Even for places built on industry, as those industrial wages grew, the same journey away from the cramped tenement or terrace took place. This was helped by the building of council houses and by the fact that, with few constraints on development, housing was affordable.

The suburb wasn’t the invention of a planner or some grand thinker. For all that people like Ebenezer Howard tried to picture a sort of utopian suburban place, all they really did was polish what had already been done by builders and the families who bought the homes they built. This laissez-faire development may explain why it is that planners, architect and the cultural elite dislike suburbia. As something that wasn’t designed by the great and good or funded by government spending other folks’ money, suburbia represented the triumph of the middle-class, a place built in their image and containing the things that made their lives good.

Today those suburbs are, in many places, dying. The families that once formed these places don’t exist. And, in large part, they don’t exist because why would anyone set out to have a family and a family life when there’s no prospect of being able to have the things that make that life good? The suburbs of big cities like London, New York, Sydney or Auckland are now filled with people who had a family once. All those fifty-, sixty- and seventy-somethings who once had growing families now live in suburban homes unaffordable for all but the most fortunate twenty- or thirty-something. These older folk like that the house they bought for less than thirty grand is now worth half-a-million or more, they like the golf course even if they don’t play golf, they enjoy the paddock with the horses but don’t ride, and they like that it is a moment’s drive out into a countryside of yellow rapeseed and wheat or barley making patterns as the wind blows. It doesn’t seem to them that it is their fault or their problem that so many people can no longer afford to do what they did – buy a suburban home and raise a family.

There is an urgent need to do something about the housing crisis, but we shouldn’t do this at the expense of family life. Record low numbers of young children should be a wake-up call for those who argue for ever more crowed cities, for technocratic fixes like subsidised childcare, who want to sustain the sociological disaster of a world directed entirely towards economic productivity. A world that gave us depressed adults, stressed children and now, a generation of people who have no real stake in the society that demands their productivity.

What we need to do is build that new suburbia, to provide places that aren’t focused on productivity and the momentary pleasure that makes this grind bearable. We need places that work for children, who can be afforded off one middle-class salary, and which provide an environment that tells us work isn’t everything. We need to compromise again with the Taylorist world of the technocrats by saying that we don’t work to make money for the sake of money or, god forbid, to pay the taxes so we can get cheaper childcare and thereby earn more money to pay more taxes.

A new suburbia is about a family being able to sit in their own garden, surrounded by good comfortable things and looking at the home they own. And as the sun shines, that family knows that the efforts they made was worthwhile. Mum and Dad can look at the kids larking about n a paddling pool or bouncing on a trampoline and take pleasure in knowing that life’s not all about work.

Friday, 15 April 2022

New Suburbia: 1. What is a suburb?


There are, it seems, two sides to the housing debate – NIMBYs and YIMBYs. Yet these groups agree on one thing – that the answer to the housing crisis is to cram more and more people into our existing urban footprint. NIMBYs do this because otherwise, in the words of Levelling Up Minister and Tory MP, Neil O’Brien " means building right next to people. And specifically, to people who chose to live on the edge to get a nice view." YIMBYs do it because they see dense, busy cities as a wonder, “humankind’s greatest invention” to quote Ben Wilson.

The thing that YIMBYs and NIMBYs agree on is that suburbs are naff. For sure most don’t use that precise word. But between the wealthy inhabitants of places like the Cotswolds and the similarly wealthy inhabitants of posh inner London (often the same people of course) there is an accord that suburbia is boring, filled with dull people doing dull things and raising dull children who will go on to be similarly dull. Suzannah Lezzard, in an essay entitled “Why Do We Hate the Suburbs?” described this outlook:

“Off they went, the two of them, both with their beautiful old houses and even more soulful gardens, on the emptiness of the suburban dream. All about what a crime the destruction of the countryside was, and not one word about what those houses, those small plots of land, might mean to those who owned them, let alone the fairness of distributing a little to many rather than sticking with a lot for a few.”

Meanwhile in the big city people like “celebrated urbanist and Fairfax architecture critic Elizabeth Farrelly” have no doubt that suburbia is not only dullsville but a dullsville which is destroying the planet:

“The suburbs are about boredom, and obviously some people like being bored and plain and predictable, I'm happy for them … even if their suburbs are destroying the world.”

The thing is that, despite a hundred years and more of urbanists and cultural critics sneering at suburbia, people still flock to live in those dull and boring suburbs. People still tell pollsters that they prefer a proper family home over a flat. Suburbia is popular. People want to live in suburbs. Or at least it seems that way. To appreciate why this is so, we need to get away from the pleasant city life of the wealthy and look instead at the unpleasant urban life of the poor.

“Suburbia in England is more than just a functional concept: it was about an escape from the squalor of the Victorian city, about well-being, aspiration, decent, plentiful and affordable housing, and the freedom of good transport, initially rail (Metroland etc), then also the car.”

This, from urban policy writer, Tom Bridges takes us away from the usual characterisation of suburbia as a sort of social dead end and towards an appreciation that living in a suburb is aspirational for someone brought up in a cramped, crowded inner city tenement. For all that we are much richer than in the Victorian slums people got on a train to escape, the life of an immigrant family in an East London council flat is still made better when that family might aspire to escape to a three or four bed house in one of those reviled suburbs.

What do we mean by a suburb? My generation in Britain have our suburban image set by popular culture. We watched Reggie Perrin walk to the station reciting the names of the streets. We laughed along with Tom and Barbara Good. We saw in ourselves a little bit of Mrs Bucket’s snobbishness and revelled in the lives of Brookside residents. Of course, most of us were growing up in these places, we were laughing at ourselves just as The Simpsons, Rosanne and The Fresh Prince allowed Americans to laugh at their suburban lives. Suburbia became a mindset, a set of values rather than just a location sort of adjacent to a big city.

Suburbia became something other than its inception as an extension of the city. A commuter village like Cullingworth where I now live is just as much a suburb as Shirley where I grew up, a land of semi-detached houses squeezed between Croydon and Beckenham. Most people’s aspirations are realistic, we’d like a huge house in Oxfordshire or a beachside villa in Southern California, but our real aspirations are for a decent family home in a good neighbourhood where we can live that boring life the urbanists peer at down their noses.

Suburban aspiration is a compromise between the pokey bedsit with a good view of a brick wall and that stately home. Quite how far along that path we travel is down to our own fortune and effort but for most people the place we finish is in a suburb, somewhere that isn’t the city. A compromise between the city’s bright lights and the comforting peace of the countryside. Suburbia, however, is more than this, it isn’t a mere compromise but a physical manifestation of our values and a reflection of what matters most to us.

City boosters always point to amenities as proof of how inner urban density is best: more restaurants, more museums, more fancy shopping, more “culture.” Yet we don’t spend our actual lives flitting from restaurant to museum to art gallery, we spend most of our lives working and at home. There may be a few people for whom that bewildering amenity is a daily blessing, but most people don’t have the time, money, or inclination to live such a life. When people in cities do go out, it is to the same narrow selection of places because these are the places we like, where we meet our friends, and where we are comfortable. Suburbia offers all of this and more – you have those places and amenities plus a healthier space, safer streets, less pollution, and better schools.

Most people’s values are distinctly conservative, and suburbia reflects this because people built such places in the teeth of opposition from radicals, liberals, and reactionaries. The sort of people who think we will live happily in tiny flats if those flats are in stylish mock-Georgian terraces do not share the values that make suburbia work. Worse these slightly fogeyish advocates of the city want to destroy the suburbia of family homes and gardens tand replace it with communal living, manicured boulevards and tightly regulated public gardens. Oh and trees, lots of slowly dying trees.

This is not people’s preference even when such environments are designed by award-winning architects and built from traditional materials. When we ask them (and, history shows, when they have the opportunity) people opt for suburb over city: in repeated surveys for the US Association of Realtors over two-thirds of respondents say their preference is for what us Brits would call a detached house and, in the most recent survey, we can see the basis for a good suburb:

“Ideally, most Americans would like to live in walkable communities where shops, restaurants, and local businesses are within an easy stroll from their homes and their jobs are a short commute away; as long as those communities can also provide privacy from neighbors and detached, single-family homes. If this ideal is not possible, most prioritize shorter commutes and single-family homes above other considerations.”

Things aren’t so very different in Britain. We are less attached to the idea of a detached home, but the main findings of these American surveys apply. It is still true that “an Englishman’s home is his castle” and the balance between community and privacy is a critical function of the suburb. We want good schools, parks, trails and social activities but we don’t want to compromise on the space where will spend most time – our home.

Wednesday, 16 March 2022

Sam Gamgee and the scouring of The Shire: an evocation of conservatism


It is a truth universally acknowledged that The Lord of the Rings is the finest novel in the English language. It is also the best evocation of conservative ideas in literature. By this I don’t mean the kings and things that dominate a shallow reading of the book but the central theme: that ordinary people can and do perform incredible acts of heroism to achieve noble ends, and in doing these remarkable things, save their world.

The tragedy of Peter Jackson’s wonderful film adaptation is that its climax is the collapse of Barad Dur not the Scouring of the Shire. I understand how, at first, this coda seems incongruous – the war was won, the ring destroyed, and the King returned, why do we finish with a petty little battle in The Shire against a diminished Saruman? We end here because that is the whole point of the book, Frodo didn’t destroy the ring so Aragorn could be King, he destroyed the ring because its presence threatened The Shire – even if most people living in Hobbiton and Bywater were unaware of the danger.

The four hobbits (Merry and Pippin get such a trite treatment in many readings and adaptations including the film) after the killing of Saruman, see The Shire as a restoration project. Sam travels the length and breadth of The Shire making the most of Galadriel’s gift, not to craft anything new but to improve what is there already. The ordinary is good and conserving it for the benefit of everyone is the job of all those with power and will. What the films did was exclude this essential conservative message from the narrative while keeping the central imperative of defeating evil.

But we still need to understand what Tolkien means by evil and the infectiousness of evil. The ring’s evil is infectious but, as we see with Ted Sandyman or with Bill Ferny, evil intent is there without the ring being necessary. Most importantly, the defeat of evil leads to the restoration of previous order. The Shire isn’t turned into a buzzing metropolis but is carefully restored and conserved as a prosperous, contented place based on family, tradition and community. Sam becomes mayor not king and his choices are conservative – preserve what is best, live a good life, help my neighbours. This is the message of the book, that the person who walked into the heart of evil and returned becomes someone respected more for their community activity as for saving the world.

Now you know that The Lord of the Rings is a conservative (and catholic, although that’s another story) novel, we can gently move into a better understanding of conservatism. To do this we need to get away from the assorted caricatures of conservatism that its opponents present. The most common criticism from the left is really a criticism of liberalism – we’re told that conservatives are selfish and individualistic rather than, as socialists see themselves, focused on the common good. Yet when you read that chapter in The Lord of the Rings, you don’t see Sam Gamgee acting selfishly or as an individual focused on his own interest, his desire is to see the place he lived, his community, preserved, protected, and enhanced.

Liberals and socialists will tell you that it is progress to pull down the old mill in Hobbiton and replace it with a new, smoke-belching behemoth. Words like ‘productivity’ and ‘efficiency’ will trip from their liberal or socialist tongues while conservatives say something like ‘I rather liked the old mill and we didn’t lack for flour, why change it all?’ Wiser conservatives will consider how we can gently and carefully make the mill a little better without the drastic, wholesale destruction of the heritage it represents. Progress isn’t wrong but we must shape it to fit place and people rather than, as liberals and socialists demand, people having to change to fit the progress.

We see this concept reflected in, for example, gay marriage (and, yes, I know many conservatives opposed its introduction). We still have marriage, something conservatives consider important, but it has broadened its remit a little. We have lost nothing, but some people have gained – the old mill has a new stone or a more reliable power source, but it is still recognisably the old mill. Applying this approach to marginal and small acts of betterment sees a place improve without the need for the old to be smashed up in the name of progress.

Another conservative feature of Sam Gamgee’s mayoralty is good administration. The libertarian economist and blogger, Tyler Cowan invented a concept he called ‘State Capacity Libertarianism’ which observed that “(m)any of the failures of today’s America are failures of excess regulation, but many others are failures of state capacity.” Cowan notes decaying infrastructure, immigration controls and climate change all require ‘state capacity’ – or good administration as conservatives might phrase it. Although it doesn’t often feel this way in our liberal age, conservatives are, or should be, more interested in improving the managing of what we’ve got than changing things. Too often the excitement of the new sweeps us away, we prefer spending billions on a new railway to stopping our ageing water infrastructure polluting rivers. I’m sure Sam would have pointed, like good councillors everywhere, to an unfilled pothole or a broken fence and said, ‘let’s get this fixed before we talk about a new road or a fancy wall.’

The final feature of Sam Gamgee’s life (apart from the bit where he went to Mount Doom with Frodo) is the centrality of family. Sam married Rosie Cotton and they had thirteen children, perhaps a tad more than par these days but a reminder that Tolkien made family a central feature of hobbit society. Bilbo’s party at the start of The Lord of the Rings features his extended family (a gross of them) and Tolkien stresses how hobbits were keen, to the point of obsession, on the niceties of genealogy. Your average hobbit didn’t get in a jumble over what was meant by first and second cousin and once or twice removed.

Alongside community, heritage and good administration, conservatives value family. Unlike the socialists whose collective focuses on work or liberals who find any collective distasteful, conservatives consider that the basic human unit is the family. Conservatives recognise the damage done by the corrupting liberal idea of the paramount individual; a corruption made worse by the socialist predilection for insisting that mothers do paid work. If the only measure that matters is what comes from work, then family suffers. A utilitarian focus on productivity results in the fragmentation of society, a fragmentation that wealth can smooth over but which collapses the communities of ordinary people. We see women urged, bribed even, to dump their children on low paid nursery workers or childminders to return to work. Worse, liberalism’s individualism results in another collapsing institution, marriage. And just as the obsession with paid work is cruel to families, the belief that marriage is an unnecessary anachronism creates the dysfunction where nearly a quarter of families are headed by a single parent, usually a working-class woman.

We talk a great deal about the consequences of rejecting marriage and family, most notably the problem of child poverty and the impact of single parenthood on child development. But liberals don’t admit error and refuse to promote marriage and family preferring to borrow the socialist idea of taxing people to subsidise children and childcare (meaning that the poor mothers can go back into the workforce, the only place where what they do is valued). We cannot see our way to a different answer because so much that is important – rent, travel, heat, light and home – is now dependent on two incomes. It’s no wonder that the UK and USA with such high rates of single parenthood, have such high rates of child poverty.

There you have it, the essence of conservatism from one chapter in The Lord of the Rings – home, family, community, heritage, care and good administration. It’s true that governments that call themselves conservative haven’t always kept to these ideas and that many who call themselves conservatives prefer power, domination and control, the traits of Tolkien’s evil. But we still hold to these ideas and quiet voices echo them. More importantly, millions of people live a conservative life – valuing their family, cherishing their community, taking responsibility for what they see out their front door. These good people, maligned by liberals and socialists as dullards who lack great qualifications and who prefer to talk about the car parking on main street or the village fete than some high-falutin’ philosophy that promises but never delivers the perfect human society. These good people are Sam Gamgee. And the world needs more of them.